Review: Rain: A Natural and Cultural History by Cynthia Barnett

Review by Melissa Frederick

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rain-cultural-history cover umbrellaMost of the time when I pick up a book, my deepest desire is to read about something I don’t already know. I don’t mean that in a snarky or self-aggrandizing way. I suspect I’m not alone, either.

These days, with the Internet churning out gigabytes of nearly identical content—celebrity slide shows, lists of best/worst/most, and collections of facts vowing to blow your mind!—it seems like what everyone’s searching for is the genuinely original experience: personalities we’ve never encountered, places we’ve never seen, ways of looking at the world that before now have never even brushed the surface of our conscious awareness.

To my surprise and delight, one of the books that’s brought me this kind of original experience is a book about rain.

Cynthia Barnett’s Rain: A Natural and Cultural History (Crown, 2015 — aptly released in April) is a masterwork of creative nonfiction, an epic built entirely around the humble, parachute-shaped raindrop. You read that right. Raindrops fall from the sky fat end up, tapered end pointing toward the ground. Never heard that one before? Me either.

Barnett fills her narrative with such rarely seen, rarely mentioned observations. Over and over, she focuses on the uncommon details of natural phenomena and historical events most of us never think twice about because we think we already know them. According to Barnett, a lack of rain has helped bring down civilizations from Mesopotamia to the Americas. Fourteenth-century witch hunts in Europe were fueled by the continuous rains and freak storms of the Little Ice Age. An English amateur meteorologist came up with the cloud classification system that gave us the term “cloud nine.”

When you reach a point in the book where you feel as though you’ve absorbed every rain fact conceivable, Barnett pulls a rabbit out of a hat and comes up with more. Alternative rock star Morrissey grew up in Manchester, England, where Charles Macintosh first manufactured the water-resistant material eventually made into the raincoat that bears his name. Efforts to make rain with cannon fire ultimately gave rise to cloud-seeding, humanity’s first successful technique to control the weather. Helen Keller could navigate her world using her sense of smell and, through her nose alone, could tell when a storm was coming.

As a storyteller, Barnett is not only interested in taking her readers on a voyage of discovery. She also considers the associations that connect all of these rain tales: the pollution from Macintosh’s factory that contributed to the drizzly, dismal environment where Morrissey began to write music; the historical emergence of terrifying, all-powerful rain gods when humanity settled in for a life of agriculture. Memorable terms for rain, rain events, and rain products are everywhere in the text as well, and Barnett weaves this uncommon, often sensory language—rain shadows, rain streamers, weather magic, strange rain, soft days, storm kings, mizzles, double textures, mitti attar—with the deftness of a poet. Even though reading Rain often left my mind truly “blown,” in the crappy Internet content sense of the word, my overall literary experience was far more profound than that, a meditation instead of a speedy shocker.

As I was writing this review, the sky outside my window gradually turned pale and dim. Now I can hear water pattering and bouncing off metal surfaces, maybe trash cans or gutters or the A/C unit still in my window. In all sincerity, Rain has been a life-changing book for me. It amazed and inspired me. What’s more, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to look at rain the same way again. Rainfall has always been part of the wallpaper of my world. A mess, an inconvenience, something to avoid or rail at or give an eyeroll to when I’m making small talk. Now I want to get myself a rain gauge and learn the different smells that rain stirs in my neck of the woods. Now I’m a rain believer.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

[Editor’s note: This review also went live on a rainy day.] [boxer set = “frederick”]


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